Lion in Crimean safari park filmed cuddling with tourists, weeks after woman hurt by different lion there
Tourists at the Taigan Safari Park in Crimea had a personal encounter with a lion when it climbed into their buggy and began nuzzling and licking them.
The owner of the park in Ukraine, 50-year-old Oleg Zubkov, was driving the park's open-air buggy when the incident happened.
In a video uploaded on Canadian news website CTV News on Thursday (Sept 6), Mr Zubkov strokes the lion's face briefly before it climbs into the vehicle.
It then climbs over his back and sprawls on the front seat, trying to nuzzle the woman in the passenger seat.
Mr Zubkov and the female passenger both exit the buggy as the lion is too big.
The lion then leaps to the back seats of the buggy, nuzzling and rubbing its head against tourists as they film it with their phones.
As the lion licks a tourist's face, Mr Zubkov says: "Those who do not want to film closer can go out."
However, the tourist responds: "No, we want to."
The lions at the safari park are known to be friendly with humans, with Mr Zubkov encouraging an up-close-and-personal experience with the big cats.
In 2016, a Russian photographer captured photos of the lions at the park playing with visitors, accepting kisses from them, and even sitting still for wefies.
The Daily Mail reported that Mr Zubkov, who is a conservationist, said that he hoped the photographs would help discourage people from hunting Siberian tigers and white lions, which are endangered.
There are more than 50 lions at the safari park, which is the biggest lion park in Europe. Approximately 1,500 other animals and birds also reside there, including tigers.
However, not all encounters with the big cats have been friendly.
Just eight weeks earlier in July, 46-year-old tourist Olga Solomina was attacked by another lion at the same park.
According to the Daily Mail, Ms Solomina said: "(The lion) bit through my right arm and used it to drag me - like a puppet.
"When it happened, right at the moment of the incident, I actually said goodbye to my life. I thought I was to be torn apart."
Mr Zubkov claimed that Ms Solomina had drunk alcohol before entering the enclosure, and had been ruffling the lion's mane before she was bitten.
He added: "She wasn't pulled forcefully into the park. She knew this was a dangerous site. She was given health and safety instructions and entered voluntarily... Still, I am ready to answer for my park before court."
Some believe such close contact between animals and humans is not a good idea. In an interview with BBC about an unrelated zoo, naturalist Claudio Bertonatti said there were two main reasons why being close to a wild animal is risky.
First, there is a risk of diseases being transmitted from visitors to animals, or vice versa.
Second, visitors' safety is also at risk.
"Who says any of these animals - be it a tiger, a lion or an elephant - won't attack a person?" he said.
The Taigan Safari Park has also drawn criticism online. In July, Captive Wildlife Watchdog, a Facebook page that aims to change "the way humanity perceives and values wild and captive wild animals", said in a post: "The dignity of these majestic beasts (at Taigan Safari park) has been stripped away, reducing them to mere commodities."
In 2014, the lions at the park were affected by the economic chaos following Russia's annexation of Crimea.
Mr Zubkov told BBC News that the animals at the park consumed a total of about 500kg of meat a day.
However, he had been unable to afford to restock the park's dwindling supplies of meat for its animals as Ukrainian banks had blocked the park's bank accounts.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.